(Art by spoon+fork.)
When my sentence was almost up, I chose the one-week job-placement course in food management. Ben was right. There weren’t any furniture-making jobs out there.
I was released in late June and got assigned to a restaurant run by these two brothers named Conti. It was a small place, they told me, next to the boardwalk. I was going to be paid through deposits into a monitored bank account, but the money was mine and it was even a little bit more than I was making at the Chatterbox. I was excited, even though I had to sign an employment contract for the duration of my one-year probation.
I had figured out that after my probation was up I would go for the ultimate office job, which was the administrative office in the middle of the boardwalk. There was always an “Office Job” sign in the door.
But I had to get through a year at the burger stand first. It was weird to leave prison on the same public bus the visitors took. I took two transfers and walked 15 blocks to the restaurant attached to the Seahorse Hotel. I was immediately disappointed because the owners, the Conti brothers, weren’t there to meet me and the restaurant was really a nameless burger stand. Even worse, it was five blocks away from the boardwalk and the hotel was run by hindus.
As I approached the order window I could faintly hear the people on the log flume screaming on the final plunge.
The only guy who was at the burger stand was Howard Peppi. He was in my class but I lost track of him when he got left back in fifth grade. It kinda wasn’t his fault. His mom had died and he needed counseling to deal with it.
I saw Howard a few times in the working world, but I never gave him much more than a nod. Him, too.
Howard came out from around the side of the stand. The skin on his face was peeling around his nose. He shook my hand and I saw that his arms were hairy to the wrists.
“Sean,” he said. “They told me you were coming.”
“What did they tell you about me?” I asked.
“That you got an 82 on the food-preparation test. That’s awesome! You’re the man!”
“Are Robert and Michael Conti here?”
“They’re never here. They believe in giving their workers a lot of independence. We’re empowered here. Damn, they feed you in jail?”
I had to face up to facts when I put the apron on. I was a tall, skinny guy and the thing wrapped around and met in the back and it wasn’t supposed to. Burger chefs are supposed to be fat. It looked like I was wearing a mini skirt, but I had to wear it by law.
I washed my hands and we got busy. As time went by, it was tough to tell that I was the new guy. In fact, I felt like I was the only guy.
By the second day I figured out that the last guy quit because he didn’t feel like doing everything. Howard wasn’t stupid, but he could only work in two speeds–slow and reverse. I could already do everything faster than him by the end of the first week.
He was always in the way and doing something wrong. He cut himself trying to open a milk carton. Caught between Howard’s incompetence and the grind of the job, I was growing disgruntled and missing my leisurely life making furniture in jail. You can’t blame me for lashing out.
I had fished out a carton of hot dogs that had expired. I was going to throw them away but I got too busy and pushed them to the side in the freezer.
Later, this woman in her 40s in a hideous one-piece came up to the window and yelled that she wanted three hot dogs, right away. I was a little shocked. I was used to having a disagreement with somebody before the yelling started. I froze. She got madder.
“Look, Gandalf, how about getting me three hot dogs! You hear me up there?”
I went over and mechanically put three frozen dogs on the grill.
“You’re lucky you’re cheaper than the boardwalk. Otherwise, no one would come here!” she continued. I looked at Howard. He was sitting on a milk crate, counting the tiles on the floor.
If you weren’t very familiar with these dogs, you wouldn’t notice anything wrong. But I could see that they were a little less plump than they should be, maybe even a little shriveled. I pulled out two stuck-together paper plates and didn’t bother to separate them. I fumbled my hands into two clear plastic gloves and pried open three cold hot-dog buns.
When they were done, I forked the dogs into the buns.
“Didn’t bother to toast them, did you!” the woman charged.
“You should have told me before,” I said, and immediately felt a little shocked at the meanness in my voice.
She slapped a $5 bill on the counter and stomped off. That was 50 cents too much. My first tip. I thought it was a little funny that she didn’t use any mustard or ketchup. I pulled up a fresh carton of ketchup packets and I pushed aside the hot-dog carton. I suddenly realized I’d given her expired dogs.
It made me chuckle a little. I opened the refrigerator and held my breath against the sour-milk smell. I pushed in a poorly wrapped half head of lettuce to make room for the deadly dogs to thaw out some more. They could come in handy later.
It was an accident at first, but when I realized the situation our burger stand was in, it was bound to happen. I have to admit that it added a level of humor to a dreary job, watching obnoxious tourists eating our expired meat. They should have been suspicious about our cheap prices, so it was kinda their fault.
The prison had set me up with the Shore Points Housing Authority for a place to live. The authority got me a small place directly above a bakery. It had a bathroom, living room and bedroom, all about the same size. There was a small fridge in the living room and a small hotplate. The city was taking care of my rent for a year and then after that I had to get out for the next guy.
I found out quick why nobody decent would live there. They turned on the ovens at about four in the morning and I’d wake up covered in sweat with the pillow and sheets thrown to the wood floor, which was hotter than a boardwalk in Hell. I had to wear a pair of slippers for the short walk to the bathroom in the morning, because if I didn’t my feet would turn into two footprint cookies.
The hamburger stand was only seven blocks down the avenue. I was always amazed at how much cooler it was outside the apartment.
The streets were jam-packed with parked cars, some double-parked and some next to fire hydrants. If the drivers were counting on the parking cops being too preoccupied to write up tickets, they were very wrong. The cops got every single one. The town even hired college students and high-school teachers to be summer meter maids. Parking tickets were a huge summer crop. In the other three seasons we had next to nothing.
That was a nice summer job. Sure, you’d be on your feet a lot, but you’d be outdoors, not stuck in a kitchen with a hot grill and boiling oil.
After a few hours of sweaty, greasy work, I told Howard I was going to go to lunch. I pulled myself out of my apron and went to the boardwalk to scope out my next job. They couldn’t stop me from leaving. I would just call in sick every day and then what the fuck could they do?
There was no way I was going to spend a summer slaving away in a hamburger stand with a useless jerk, and the creepy hindu couple at the hotel were weirding me out.
The boardwalk was about 30 short blocks long. At the south end was a small amusement park with a Ferris wheel and the log flume. The north end had a pier with a big open-air seafood restaurant. Between the restaurant and the Ferris wheel were thousands of people smeared in coconut oil, as many on the boardwalk as on the beach.
The Italian presence on the New Jersey shore was proof that the Romans had hit America years before Columbus or the pilgrims. Every block had a Three Brothers From Italy pizza place. If there were only three brothers, they must have had a ton of sisters who had opened places, too.
Walking down the boardwalk, I was coated with in burned fat from the smoky sausage stands. People were walking around smearing pizza and calzones in their faces. I used to wonder why there was never any Irish food, because there were enough of us around. One of my teachers told me that Irish didn’t eat — they only drank.
There were game stands where you could throw darts at balloons to win mirrors etched with Tony Soprano’s face or posters with Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro. You’d think Italians were an all-male race if it weren’t for the women in bikinis and big hair. I learned pretty early on where I should look first at a girl. Right where the cross pendant was.
It turned me on to see a metal cross next to its sunburned outline on a woman’s chest. That went back to my childhood when I was on the boardwalk and a woman bent over me to turn my baseball cap backwards. I wasn’t listening to what she said and stared between her tits the entire time. Was it a mortal sin to find crosses sexy?
The smells from the ocean, grill grease and suntan lotion swirled around my head and all the tits and ass made me a little horny. This was the life!
I wanted to aim high, so I decided to start at my dream job in the boardwalk visitors’ center. The “Office Job” sign was still up. I was in luck!
There was a guy in his 20s behind the counter with a broken nose that healed crooked and a muscular bare chest.
“One-day pass?” he asked me.
“No, I wanted to apply for the job,” I said.
“The job?” He coughed and then laughed loudly. “How old are you?”
“You look like you’re 20! You know how to swim?”
“I can swim. But, why do I have to swim?”
“You have to go through our training program, you know? It’s a requirement for everybody who works here.”
“I can do it.”
“Take your shirt off.”
“Because I want to check out your tits. We’re all fucking gay, didn’t you know?” Another lifeguard came out from the back. He was tanned darker than the other guy and was holding a bottle of water.
“We got a problem here?” the second guy asked. He gulped down some water and it made his arm bulge like a huge calzone.
“Gilligan here wants the job,” the first guy said. They exchanged smirks.
“My name’s Sean,” I shot.
“Take your fucking shirt off, Sean,” said the second guy.
I took my shirt off and I felt like I was back in sixth-period gym class.
“Damn! Check out Skinny McSkinny!” said the first guy, pounding the counter. The second frowned hard, showing off his muscular jaw. “You know,” the first guy continued, “can you even throw a life preserver?”
“Yeah, I can,” I said. My face was getting hot and I was suddenly scared that I was going to start crying. “If I really had to.”
The first guy looked at me and then felt a little bad. Seems like the only breaks I ever got in life was when I made someone else feel bad for what they were doing to me.
It even helped when I was in front of the judge earlier the previous year. He could’ve given me two years of prison under the new anti-marijuana law, but he looked at me and I saw him break in his eyes. When the hammer came down, it was the minimum one-year prison, one-year probation sentence.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the first guy. “If you can beat me in an arm wrestle, I’ll sign you up right away for training.”
I said, “All right.”
He stood up and put his elbow on the counter. I came up and grabbed his hand. It felt like a catcher’s mitt with bones.
The second guy said, “Three, two, one. . .go!”
All of a sudden, I thought about God and evolution. Were dinosaurs really demons struck down by God? Or were they animals that just died out? If we did evolve from apes, then why were apes still around? How come they didn’t die out?
I became aware of a sharp pain at the base of my right hand. My arm was flat on the counter except for my wrist, which was still cocked at an angle and, more importantly, wasn’t down.
“Give up?” asked the first guy.
I shook my head.
He pulled harder but he still couldn’t get my hand down. I managed to turn my wrist just slightly. Maybe I could tire him out and make a huge comeback.
Then he squeezed my hand and it was the biggest thing I ever felt in my life. It stopped my pulse.
When I came to, I was sitting on the floor with my back against a potted plant. Both lifeguards were on my side of the counter, looking down at me.
“Are you okay, Sean?” asked the second guy. They both looked worried for their jobs. I pulled myself up and put both elbows on the counter. When I felt steady enough, I put my shirt back on.
“I can’t work here yet, anyway,” I said. “I have to finish up a previous commitment.”
“The sign is a joke,” said the first guy. “We use it to trick girls into giving us blow jobs in the back office.”
(Part 3 next week.)